Trip Date: September 19th, 2022
Participants: Noah Macdonald, Will Raleigh-Smith
On Sunday, September 18th at around 3pm, Will asked if I was free to climb the next day — he was itching to get on some alpine rock before the end of the season. I was free and happy to join. A quick phone call later, and we had settled on the Ensakwatch Enchainment as our objective. This traverse is in the North Cascades, right outside of Chilliwack. It shares a parking lot with the better-known Mt. Slesse, which is host to one of the 50 classic climbs of North America.
According to the comments section on Mountain Project, the original Ensakwatch Enchainment connects Guardian, Disillusion, North Illusion, South Illusion, North Nesakwatch, South Nesakwatch, Rexford, Pi Pillar and Rexford South. However, we opted to climb the standard “lite” version of the traverse described on p. 279 of Kevin McLane’s Alpine select, which traverses from north to south over the two Nesakwatch spires and Mount Rexford at a difficulty of IV D 5.7. Practically any reference to climbing the “Ensakwatch Enchainment” is referring to this shorter variant. And no, “Ensakwatch” is not a typo; for whatever reason the name of the traverse has the first two letters of “Nesakwatch” flipped. I’d be curious to learn about the etymology of the name, if anyone happens to know.
Our plan was to leave at 8pm that very evening and drive up the Nesakwatch Creek forest service road. We would sleep in Will’s car at the trailhead and tackle our objective the next day. This gave me a little under 5 hours to get coverage for work that evening, buy food, pack gear, and read up on the route. Our rack consisted of tricams, a single rack of nuts, and a double rack of cams. While we ended up leaving some of this in the car, it was still simultaneously too much gear, but also not enough; the crux technically needs a BD #5 to protect, but seeing as neither of us owns one, the largest size we brought was a #4. We also opted to use my 9mm 60m single rope; no double length rappels are necessary or particularly viable on the route.
Unlike many VOC trips I’ve been on, and despite the limited time, we actually managed to leave when we said we would. The FSR posed no real trouble for Will’s car (though I wouldn’t recommend attempting it with a low clearance vehicle; the water bars are not insignificant). Soon enough, we were camping at the trailhead alongside a few other vehicles. As it turns out, I knew one of the other parties; on the morning of the 19th, we woke up and found ourselves face to face with Steven Song. He was there to bag the South Nesakwatch spire (his trip report can be found here: https://stevensong.com/coastal-interior-bc/bc-cascades/south-nesakwatch-spire/).
At 5:22am we started walking down the road. While in theory you could drive further than Slesse Memorial trailhead and cut some distance off the approach, the road is significantly rougher and would require an appropriately modified vehicle. The path was well maintained, with ropes in the steeper sections. The only part of the approach specifically worth mentioning was a large washed out creek bed. It looked as though there was a trail ascending the climber’s left hand side of the creek, but a fixed rope on the crumbling far side of the creek quickly persuaded us to abandon the thought of pushing straight up the creek. By the time the sun was rising, we had gained enough elevation to clearly see Mt. Slesse on the other side of the valley. This was the best view I’d ever had of it. I climbed the NE Buttress back in 2021, but it had been either dark or cloudy every time I had been far enough away to potentially get a good view of the whole thing. I had therefore only ever seen the mountain from the perspective of being on the NE Buttress itself, which is exciting in its own right, but not the same as viewing it from afar. Looking at it from across the valley let me see it in its entirety; I took lots of photos, though none do it justice.
We made good time up the trail, and soon we were above the treeline. The approach consisted of 1200m of elevation gain, which I suppose is the largest deterrent to climbers accessing the area. But the steep trail guards an alpine rock paradise; this area is often described as a smaller version of the Bugaboos, only without the crowds. Seeing it myself made me agree that a comparison to the Bugaboos is apt.
One other party was visible. They had gotten there ahead of us and were setting off up the SW Ridge of the N. Spire: an aesthetic 8 pitch 5.9. If not for the necessity of covering terrain quickly to successfully summit all three peaks, I would have loved to take this route up the N. Spire instead of the north ridge.
After refilling our water with chunks of snow from a lingering snow patch, we set up the north ridge. For the most part, it was a fourth class scramble, though at times rather exposed. The rock was solid, and it made for enjoyable climbing. We brought out the rope only once we reached something that I’d describe as a chimney feature. Will led the pitch without too much hassle until it came time to exit the chimney. He found a little gap that he could squeeze through with some effort (and the removal of his backpack) that could spit him out on easy terrain leading to the summit. This pitch felt tougher than the supposed crux of the traverse (the summit block of the S. Spire), though it wasn’t all that much harder than 5.7. It was certainly more difficult than we had expected from the north ridge of the North Spire, though, as the route is graded at low-5th. It is likely that this pitch of climbing is entirely unnecessary to the ridge. However, it was an enjoyable pitch, and added a bit of real climbing to what was otherwise no more than a difficult scramble, which is a plus in my books.
Our next objective was the South Spire, which contained the supposed technical crux of the route: a short 5.7 offwidth pitch guarding the true summit. The descent down the south ridge was rather straightforward, and so was the climbing up the bulk of the ridge, though there was at least one pitch that also felt more difficult than the supposed crux on the summit block. Soon enough, we caught up to Steven Song’s party, who were just finishing getting the last of their group up (and then back down) the summit. While we could have asked for a toprope, that wouldn’t have been very fun; we waited until they were down, and Will quickly dispatched the pitch without any protection. While I was technically belaying him, I wouldn’t actually be able to do much of anything if he fell, so I just took some photos instead.
At this point, we said our goodbyes to Steven’s party, who having completed their mission would begin descending back to the car shortly after we set off. Will and I, however, had one more peak to bag: Mt. Rexford. From afar, the route did not look particularly easy. Luckily, this was entirely illusory, and the climb ended up being very straightforward, including the final pitch of low 5th class that guarded the summit. The descent off Rexford is where things got more interesting; after rigging a rappel station with some of the cord we brought and doing a handful of rappels and sections of downclimbing, we left the summit block and began down the west ridge. Considering that the west ridge seems to be the standard route, there were more sections that entailed needing to downclimb (down-scramble?) through thick shrubs than I would have anticipated. At one point, we had the option of rappelling down through a gulley using a bolted station to regain the central talus field, or continue down the ridge. We chose the latter option, but in hindsight the rappels might have cut a fair bit of distance off of our route. We crossed the talus field back to gain the trail, and saw the large flat rock typically used as a campsite for parties staying multiple days in the area. It wasn’t particularly large (I certainly wouldn’t want to share it with multiple other parties), but it would definitely make for an enjoyable and memorable campsite — I hope to come back and do some of the more difficult climbing in the area.
On our way out, we also noticed that the party that had been ahead of us in the morning was still descending the mountain, and by a non-standard descent route. Clearly, they had experienced a bit of an epic on the SW ridge, as they were still fairly high on the mountain this late in the day. They didn’t appear to need a rescue, so we continued towards the trail. The descent down to the trailhead went by without any real problems, and we were back at the car 14hrs and 51min after we had started. Our pace had been relaxed, with plenty of breaks and no particular hurry; it had been a long day, but not a particularly tough one. According to my watch, the route involved 18km of horizontal distance and 1650m of elevation gain. However, the GPX file makes it look like it had some trouble pinpointing our location, so I would take those numbers with a grain of salt.
The Ensakwatch Enchainment gets my strongest endorsement; if you like long-but-easy Alpine climbs, this route is second to none in the area. If you prefer harder climbing, the Nesakwatch Spires and Mt. Rexford have plenty to offer. If it weren’t for the FSR and 1200m+ approach, I would think that this area would be swarming with more people. It offers high quality rock, aesthetic lines of varying difficulties, and great views in an alpine environment.
I should add that to get off the summit of S Nesakwatch without downclimbing the offwidth, you should place a large sling/ bail cord around the large flakey edge and rap adjacent to the offwidth. If you want your sling back. Flick it off with your rope: Yeeeeeehawwww!!